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War Stories

August 26, 2008

Growing up, I was fascinated by war stories. None of them prepared me for the Vietnam war, where I grew into adulthood as a soldier and then as a veteran protesting the war. That’s because of how war stories are generally presented in America: War is hell, but it’s the only proper way of peacemaking in a rough world.

It’s hard for veterans with another view to get heard in this country. It takes a lot of perseverance. It means telling shocking accounts to often skeptical audiences of ill-conceived missions that waste soldiers’ lives, of counter-productive actions against civilians, whose outraged relatives then seek revenge, escalating the level of violence. It means enduring accusations of making it up, of being unpatriotic. It means being your own reporter and presenting documentation and other witnesses, as well as your commentary. It means being ignored or rebuffed by news organizations, more often than not.

Fed up with news coverage of the current war, many veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan are going public to tell their own stories. Some want to call attention to heroic and humanitarian deeds, which they contend demonstrate America’s commitment to fighting the good fight against bad guys. Others want to unveil horrendous deeds, which they contend undermine the good deeds and official claims of protecting civilians trapped in war zones that our military actions created. Upbeat war stories generally run as feature stories and then get overshadowed by headlines and photos of the next bombing or disputed battle. The bitter war stories are a harder sell in newsrooms, because they are far more chilling than editors are comfortable with.

Consider the recent Winter Soldier hearings at the National Labor College in Silver Spring, Maryland. “The BBC predicted that the event, organized by Iraq Veterans Against the War, ‘could be dominating the headlines around the word this week’ (3/7/08)…Yet there has been an almost complete media blackout on this historic news event in the U.S. corporate media,” noted Fairness & Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR) after the four-day event in March.

The Washington Post buried an account in the local news section. The major TV networks ignored this grassroots challenge to the official version of the war on terrorism, presented by “scores of angry young combat veterans denouncing the war they recently fought as a disaster kindled by inadequate vision, with American troops wasted while being pushed to commit acts that scarred them,” said a report on the hearings in The VVA Veteran, published by Vietnam Veterans of America.

Former soldiers told of repeated incidents, sparked by what they were trained to do, of GI’s in supply conveys and patrols shooting up civilian cars that share the same roadways, even driving on sidewalks and hitting anyone in the way. They told of repeatedly being ordered to break into people’s homes in futile searches for insurgents and terrorizing families whose sons and fathers were dragged out of their beds and hauled off for interrogation. They told of repeated abuse of men, women and children held in custody. They told of living with nightmares of their own actions.

“The veterans are not against the military and seek not to indict it – instead they seek to shine a light on the bigger picture: that the Abu Ghraib prison regime and the Haditha massacre of innocent Iraqis are not isolated incidents perpetrated by ‘bad seeds’ as the military suggests, but evidence of an endemic problem,” The Sunday Times Magazine of London reported in a cover story on the veterans’ searing accounts. “Some see it as their responsibility to speak out … They believe that, as veterans, they are the most credible sources of information. They say they were put in immoral and often illegal positions.”

These are the violence-scorched voices of veterans that most of the American news media ignored in previous wars, as well. But times have changed since the TV networks and major newspapers shied from accounts of repeated military assaults on civilians in Vietnam, conveyed by Vietnam veterans in hearings around the country and before Congress. This time, the “harrowing testimony about atrocities,” as FAIR put it, was carried live on the Internet and widely broadcast on independent TV and radio.

“These are the stories you never hear in the paper,” a woman watching a live screening of the Winter Soldier hearings shown at a Unitarian Church in Cambridge, Mass., told a Boston Globe reporter. “It’s really powerful to hear from the veterans.”

Yet some speakers at the hearings in Maryland told the same horrendous accounts four years ago at a Veterans for Peace convention in Boston. Organizers of that 2004 event—which I reported on at the time in an Internet newsletter—sought news media coverage of the newly-formed Iraq Veterans Against the War. Many of these veterans were subsequently featured three years later in a Nation magazine cover story titled “The Other War: Iraq Vets Bear Witness.”

These accounts and others are presented in a new book, “Collateral Damage: America’s War Against Iraqi Civilians” by Chris Hedges and Laila Al-Arian, published by Nation Books. Hedges, who wrote the Iraq vets’ story in The Nation, is a former Middle East bureau chief for the New York Times; Al-Arian, a freelancer whose work has appeared in the Washington Report on Middle East Affairs. So far, according to a Google search, the most substantial media notice of this book appeared in the Deseret News of Salt Lake City, Utah.

“It is an unapologetic ‘expose of a military occupation gone awry.’" says Deseret News book reviewer Dennis Lythgoe. “The authors discuss how the mechanics of war — home raids, convoys, patrols, detentions and military checkpoints — lead to abuse and the killing of innocent people.” After summarizing some nightmarish incidents, Lythgoe concludes, “This represents just a small part of the stories contained in this disturbing but well-written book about the damages of war that journalists don't usually cover.”

Hedges, who has written two previous books on the ugly reality of modern warfare, which he covered as a war correspondent, addresses this disconnect in “Collateral Damage.” “The press coverage of the war in Iraq rarely exposes the twisted pathology of this war,” he writes. Part of it has to do with reporters “hemmed in by drivers and translators and official security and military escorts” not being present during most military actions, when ferocious gunfire can abruptly erupt amid mid-day civilian traffic or in a residential home subjected to a night time raid.

“The campaign against a mostly invisible enemy, many veterans said, has given rise to a culture of terror and hatred among U.S. forces, many of whom … have in effect declared war on all Iraqis,” Hedges wrote in a summary of his interviews with 50 disillusioned veterans of military operations in Iraq. That sort of attitude is not likely to be shared with news reporters by publicity minded military escorts. Another reason reporters in Iraq seldom stray from the officially approved version of events, Hedges maintains, is self-censorship in order to stay on the good side of military escorts: “Most reporters know that the invasion and the occupation have been a catastrophe. They know the Iraqis do not want us [there]. … But the press, or at least most of it, has lost the passion, the outrage, and the sense of mission that once drove reporters to defy authority and tell the truth.”

Hedges also faults editors, who make the final decisions. Perhaps the biggest reason for lack of coverage of what he calls “the vast enterprise of industrial slaughter unleashed in Iraq” by Americans wielding machine guns, grenade launchers, heavy artillery, rockets and bombs from helicopters and airplanes in city neighborhoods and rural villages is that news editors, he argues, have lost interest in the war. “As the war sours, as it no longer fits into the mythical narrative of us as liberators and victors, it is fading from view. The cable news shows that packaged and sold us the war have stopped covering it,” he noted, while newspapers “have shut down their Baghdad bureaus.”

Still, there are ways to reach the public. When the 1971 Winter Soldier hearings held in Detroit, Michigan, got scant news coverage outside the Midwest, hundreds of Vietnam veterans took their war stories to Washington. They set up an encampment to talk with members of Congress, passersby and anybody else who would listen. What they had to say as they marched around from government office to government office set off such a confrontation with the Nixon administration it became an instant national news story.

Months later, a small group of Vietnam veterans published a book (“Winning Hearts & Minds”) that told exceedingly grim war stories in poems—many of which quickly appeared in newspapers and magazines across the country and, within a few years, in American history books.

Iraq and Afghanistan veterans are following a similar route and making wide use of the Internet, as well. A sampling of their stories was published earlier this year in “Warrior Writers: Re-Making Sense, a Collection of Artwork by Members of Iraq Veterans Against the War.” “This writing is raw, edgy and meant to shock readers into feeling what it’s like, for an instant, to be in a soldier’s skin when war memories intrude into civilian life,” I wrote in the book’s introduction.

For further information: www.ivaw.org

Jan Barry is a veteran of war zones and newsrooms and coeditor of “Winning Hearts & Minds: War Poems by Vietnam Veterans,” among other works.

Selected Works

Poetry
A tonic spray of poetry, verses that a Vietnam war veteran lives by.
Prose
A pragmatic, common-sense handbook for civic action at the community and international levels.